Photo: Marc Goldstein
Name any writer you've ever wanted to meet, and chances are Michael Silverblatt has interviewed them on his weekly public radio show—a mad tea party of talk that's been going strong for the past 20 years. Kristy Davis meets the man behind the mike.
To L.A.—land of black Porsches, palm trees like showgirls, and raging rivers of traffic. But overhead, a blue sky to break your heart, and due west, the silver promise of ocean. If you listen, if you try, if you open up your ears, mind, and heart, there are people around who will show you how to be—how to live in the world in all its strife, sorrow, and ineffable beauty. Just turn on the radio.
I'm early to the station on a Saturday morning, navigating gray basement halls with red doors, hopelessly lost until I catch the wings of the writer Scott Carrier's voice emanating from a room in the back, where a man stooped over some papers invites me to sit down. Later I learn that the room was the master control booth, and the announcer was in the middle of a broadcast. That's KCRW for you—a stranger could wander in off the street, like what she hears, and accept an invitation to listen.
Santa Monica College started the station after World War II as a training facility for veterans. By the time general manager Ruth Seymour took over in the mid-'70s, it had the oldest transmitter west of the Mississippi, a tiny broadcast range, and an annual budget bottleneck of $10,000. Seymour says, "You have such great opportunity when you're in such desperate straits." Spoken like a true Bronx native.
Seymour has since turned KCRW into one powerhouse of a public radio station: 550,000 local listeners and more than 50,000 subscribers. KCRW produces more nationally syndicated programs than any other single independent station. It was the first to broadcast This American Life outside of Ira Glass's home station in Chicago. KCRW's signature show, Which Way, L.A.?, hit the ground running with marathon coverage of the 1992 L.A. riots. This year punk-rock icon Henry Rollins signed on to host a show. And then there's the Bookworm.
Michael Silverblatt is bobbing about the Los Angeles Times Book Awards ceremony like a birthday boy ready for cake. "Hi, hi, hi hi," he says. "Hi, hi, hi." You'd never know this man was once so shy he agreed to go to a party only if he could stand next to the host all evening. Cross-eyed (can't drive, can't read unless the type's two inches from his nose), balding, and tall with a bumbling gait, he is far from the polished media persona we're used to. "I'm an intellectual," he once said in a radio interview. "I look like an intellectual. My glasses are pretty thick. I think I smile nicely, and there's something cute about me, but I'm never going to be the dreamy blue-eyed wonder."
Born near Flatbush, Brooklyn, on August 6, 1952, to the children of Russian and Polish immigrants, Michael was raised in a middle-class family of accountants who were not especially literary. Still, his mother read her way through his honors English syllabus and his father often took him to the library, loving concessions to an extraordinarily gifted if sometimes strange son who dreamed about one day becoming the king of books. He kept to himself mostly, which worried his parents. They took him to see The Sound of Music on Broadway. "I was so afraid that they were going to tell me to go onstage and play with the children," he says. "And I was thinking, 'But I don't know the words to these songs.'"
Michael carried his love of literature to college, the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he met and was mentored by such writers as John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Dwight Macdonald, all of whom left an indelible imprint. He shuffled home each holiday to dutifully explain what he'd learned in school, sometimes resurrecting family debates he had newfound answers to—like why Anna Karenina left her husband (hint: it was not about his ears).
We Hear You!